The Secret, Ignored Value of Labor by Gary Sudborough

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by Gary Sudborough
Featured Writer
Dandelion Salad
14 July 2009

To give a logical answer as to why laboring people are not paid nearly the real value of their labor, I need to go back in history and give a basic scientific explanation of the situation. As most people know the energy that powers life on Earth comes from the sun, and is trapped by photosynthesis in plants, and animals by consuming plants or other animals obtain this energy. This energy enables animals to move, and in certain animals like human beings to do what is known as work.

Why is this labor necessary? Because human beings are born into this world naked and frail and with a multitude of wants and needs necessary for their survival. Other mammals have fur to protect from the environment, many are much stronger or swifter or like humans band together for their survival. Human beings must have food for energy, shelter to protect from the environment, clothing for the cold and because they are intelligent, entertainment and culture, and because they are curious animals, scientific needs to try and understand the universe and why they exist.

In order to meet the basic needs, humans cannot just lay back and bask in the sun and expend a minimal of energy. They must either grow crops, gather fruits and vegetables from the environment or do hunting and fishing. They must learn how and expend energy in making clothes and building shelters. This is the first primitive form of work. Initially, they all labored together and shared the results of their labor in common. This was what Marx called primitive communism.

Gradually, with the development of agriculture and more productive methods of increasing yields like irrigation and the saving of seeds of the better plants, a surplus of food was produced and not every human needed to labor. Then, came the con artists and the people who could make people believe their right to rule and not work was derived from God, or those who were powerful enough physically and had better weapons and could rule those that did work to provide human needs. It is well known that kings in medieval Europe believed that they ruled by divine right. The nobles thought that they were almost a separate species of animal (blue bloods and gentlemen) and had the right to rule over the rabble-the lower classes of working people. Because of this utter disdain for the serfs the nobles could treat them abominably, rape their daughters, run over them in their horse-driven vehicles of various descriptions, tax them heavily and take away most of the crops they produced. The nobles lived luxurious lives on the best food, went to balls and danced, gambled and engaged in every sort of sensual pleasure, while the producers of their wealth had to watch their children starve to death or die of disease. This is the beginning of the robbery of labor, although it goes much further back to slavery in the Greek and Roman empires. Victor Hugo, the author of such classics as Les Miserables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, stated that the paradise of the rich is made out of the hells of the poor.

It must have been a terrible shock to these European nobles and gentlemen of property when Charles Darwin published the Origin of Species and proved their distant relatives were apes, and that even further back in time, they evolved from tiny organisms in the sea. That idea essentially makes them the same as the rabble in the streets, despite their refined manners and pompous, narcissistic attitudes and their implied divine right to rule. Darwin made a monkey out of them and they didn’t appreciate his endeavors.

As an illustration of the value of labor, let us suppose a medieval craftsman spent much more time and effort on a chair or cabinet and used more intricate designs. This chair or cabinet would necessarily have much more value than one where less effort was used.

Now, however Man’s inventive mind was able to create the designs for mass production machinery. The inventors, however, except in very rare cases, were not the owners of this new mass production machinery. The owners were the ones who had by that time robbed the continents of Africa, Asia and South America of much of their wealth in gold, silver and other precious commodities, and also for centuries had been robbing the serfs of Europe of the value of their labor.

These rich capitalists needed to pay their workers only the survival value of their labor- that is the amount of money which would enable the workers to show up for work the next day. Let us assume that the amount of labor necessary for minimal shelter and food was two hours of work. Then, all the rest of the hours of the day’s labor of workers was pure profit for the capitalists. Therefore, they worked people twelve and sometimes sixteen hours a day as this was surplus value as Marx called it. The only limit was that laborers needed sleep not to break down and machinery didn’t. Consequently, they often hired two shifts a day to make even more profit. They often hired children because they had nimble fingers and could do delicate work faster. Also, they hired women and children because they caused less labor problems than men. In China the capitalists could work people to death in toxic environments because they had such a surplus of labor. I remember reading British health inspectors’ reports documenting conditions for little Chinese children in match factories, where they got phosphorus burns all over their bodies. Upon death, they were simply thrown on the trash heap for the dogs to eat.

The only other cost to the capitalists is that of raw materials, and the depreciation in their machinery, as machinery like everything else is subject to the law of entropy and tends to disorder with time, but Marx figured this into their cost and capitalists still make enormous profits. The raw materials were very cheap to the capitalists as they were either the result of exploited labor or of slavery. The cotton for British and American textile factories came from slavery in the United States. As Eduardo Galeano explained in his book The Open Veins of Latin America, the slavery of Native Americans produced many of the raw materials for Europe, including gold and silver. This is the book which President Hugo Chavez of Venezuela gave to President Obama when they met in Mexico. I hope Obama will read the book, but I rather doubt it.

King Leopold II of Belgium used slave labor and torture to extract rubber and ivory from the Belgium Congo. A shipping clerk named E.D. Morel discovered this fact when he observed that the ships unloaded from the Belgium Congo contained rubber, but those returning to the Congo only contained guns and ammunition. E.D. Morel and Roger Casement established an organization called the Congo Reform Association to fight slavery there, but in return King Leopold created a competing propaganda system, insisting he was helping the natives. Extracting rubber in the Belgium Congo was different than in the Amazon forest, where tapping trees was the source of the rubber. In the Belgium Congo it was located in large vines that hung from tall trees, often in swampy territory. It was a disagreeable, exhausting and dangerous job. One way the Belgians could get the Africans to do it was to capture their women or their children and hold them hostage, threatening them with harm, of course. Other terrible methods adopted by the Anglo-Belgian India Rubber Company were massacres of natives and cutting off hands and feet. An extremely painful whip was used called a chicotte. It was made of sun-dried hippopotamus hide fashioned in a sharp-edged corkscrew style. It was often used on disobedient natives or those who failed to get their daily quota of rubber. Ah, the wonders of capitalism.

Capitalists discovered that the most profitable way to operate a corporation was vertical integration. A corporation would hold all stages in the process from the raw materials through the various other processes to the final product. In other words, a company like Standard Oil would own everything from the oil to the pumping apparatus to the refineries and cracking plants to the final products of gasoline, kerosene, etc. It is always claimed that competition leads to the wonderful products of capitalism. John D. Rockefeller eliminated this competition by bribing the railroads to give him a preferential rate on transportation of his oil and thus abolished all his competition. Capitalism is built on so many myths that people are taught to fervently believe in from childhood.

As one can easily observe, workers are continually being robbed of the value of their labor, not just by people like Bernie Madoff or corporations like Enron or banks or mortgage companies, but every day they go to work, as they are not being compensated adequately.

Labor unions have attempted to compensate for this imbalance to some extent, but workers really need to own and operate these factories themselves, as they are essentially owned by thieves extending far back into history.

There is a whole mythology of sophisticated economic arguments built up to contradict Marx, but it is just so much obfuscation, done by well-paid sycophants of the owners of society. Some point to sports stars or Hollywood actors or gambling and bribery as departures from Marx’s theory of value. This is just the idle rich playing with their fortunes. If all the common workers would lay down their tools and shut off their machines, the economy would halt, showing whose labor is really valuable.

Authors like Charles Dickens, Victor Hugo, Upton Sinclair, Emile Zola and others all pointed to the miserable and degrading treatment of the poor. To quote Charles Dickens:

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of reason, it was the age of foolishness, it was an epoch of faith, it was an epoch of incredulity, it was the season of light, it was the season of darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair.”

How little things have changed. For thousands of years it has been the winter of despair for poor, working people. Enough! Enough of thousands of children dying unnecessarily every year of starvation and from diseases from impure water. Enough of children being appendages to machinery for nearly all their waking hours in sweatshops around the world and losing their childhood to drudgery. Enough of poisoning the planet with radioactive uranium 238 in bombs and shells. Enough of soldiers coming home blind or without legs due to fighting for the rich capitalists, instead of their country, as they mistakenly presume. Enough of millions of people being deprived of the true value of their labor by capitalist thieves. There is no natural law that precludes humanity from perishing from the Earth like the dinosaurs.